This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
It’s a familiar staple of middle and high school, one that makes parents fret and students snicker and, in some states and school districts, stirs up fiery controversy: sex-education classes.
Sex-ed classes in Caldwell County mirror those around the country in plenty of ways, focusing the conversation in five days of sex education on everything from contraceptives to sexually transmitted diseases and placing an emphasis on abstinence. But the classes here also place an intense focus on something else: continuing to combat a teen-pregnancy rate that once was one of the highest in the state.
In 1997, the school system contracted with the Caldwell Council for Adolescent Health to provide sex-education classes within the school system. The organization was founded in 1983, without a complex or multifaceted mission statement. It was created, executive director Angie Ashley said, “for the sole reason to prevent teenage pregnancies.”So now the council spends a large chunk of its time each year teaching sex ed to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders in the county. They rotate through Caldwell’s middle schools, high schools and K-8s, spending five days (a full school week) at each.
Since the council’s founding, the teen-pregnancy rate in the county has dropped from the fourth-highest out of 100 North Carolina counties to 46th.
The council’s involvement fits within the bounds of sex education in North Carolina and dovetails with the healthful living essential standards built into the Common Core state standards. But all the same, it’s unusual.
Having health professionals teach sex education isn’t a typical setup, said Keith Hindman, middle school director for the Caldwell County Schools. (It may catch on, though – Alexander County officials are considering bringing the Caldwell Council for Adolescent Health in to teach their seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, Ashley said.)
In the five-day courses, teachers – one male and one female – come at teen pregnancy from a variety of angles. They talk about teen pregnancy rates in the county and state and at the students’ own high school. They watch “Too Young,” a DVD the council’s health educators describe as a more realistic, less glossed-over version of MTV’s “16 and Pregnant.” Students are asked to consider what they’d do if they became pregnant or got someone pregnant – what arrangements they would make, who they would tell, where they would stay.
Parents, of course, are given a choice. Their children can participate in the program as a whole. They can choose the “abstinence until marriage” track, which essentially means their child will sit out the day contraceptives are discussed. Or they can opt out entirely.
For their part, the council tries to leave moral arguments for parents to make, instead focusing on abstinence as the surest way to avoid pregnancy or STDs.
“We’re not the value people or the moral people,” Ashley said. “We’re the information people.”
The effects of the program can vary. In 2004, the teen-pregnancy rate in Caldwell County dropped lower than it ever had, to 67th among the state’s 100 counties. Now it’s back up to 46.
But that’s likely a result of shifts in population and circumstance rather than any changes in the program itself, Ashley said; 2004 was a good economic year for Caldwell County – one of its last. And teen pregnancies tend to rise along with unemployment and poverty rates.
At a meeting on the sex education program last week, one of three, a few parents showed up to ask questions about the program.
“A few” means four. At least now, sex education is not the subject of controversy in Caldwell County.
That meeting went as you’d expect it to go. The fathers in attendance were bullish on just what their expectations you were. (Asked what type of physical contact was appropriate between two ninth-graders, one responded: “A handshake.”) And a few parents had nervous questions about how ready their child really was for this information.
Hindman said he gets a few phone calls a year with those questions. He said he gives them his personal opinion: that kids are probably going to hear about it either way and that this is an opportunity for them to get the facts.
“I’d rather them get it from these trained professionals than on the bus,” he said.
While rates have dropped drastically in Caldwell, teen pregnancy is still a crisis in the United States. There are more teen pregnancies here than anywhere else in the developed world, around 400,000 of them each year.
That’s been blamed on a number of factors, from the media to access to contraception. Ashley said she believes it’s largely because parents don’t talk to their kids about sex.
“Parents say, ‘Don’t do it,’” she said. “They don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about boundaries.”
Each year, the council’s sex-education classes also focus on opening a dialogue between students and their parents. A survey is sent home, and parents are encouraged to discuss the morals and boundaries they’d like their students to observe – what to do and where to stop, not just “don’t do it.”
The problem confronting the council is not as huge as it was when they started teaching classes of middle and high schoolers. But it still exists.
In 2011, 137 15- to 19-year-old girls got pregnant in Caldwell County, according to the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina.